Madlyn Abramson was a cancer survivor who championed cancer research, a Philadelphia public school teacher who championed education locally and in Israel and one of the region’s most influential philanthropists. She died April 15 of complications from a stroke at her home in Blue Bell.
She was 84.
Together with her husband Leonard, the former CEO of US Healthcare, the Abramsons laid the foundations of a philanthropic powerhouse, over which their three daughters and nine grandchildren will oversee.
At the time it was made, in 1997, the $100 million the Abramsons donated for what would become Penn Medicine’s Abramson Cancer Center was “the single largest contribution for cancer research to a National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center … and one of the largest gifts ever made to a university,” said University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann and Board of Trustees Chairman David L. Cohen.
Abramson graduated from the Philadelphia High School for Girls and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Penn in preparation for a career in education, specifically as a reading specialist. As a young professional, she taught in public schools in Upper Darby, then became a reading specialist in Philadelphia public schools before taking a job with the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit.
Though she’d devote the rest of her life to charitable causes, the extent to which the Abramson Family Foundation has given to educational initiatives underscores how highly Abramson prioritized education at all stages of life.
In addition to serving as a Penn trustee, Abramson gave back to her graduate school program, Penn’s Graduate School of Education. As an overseer there, Gutmann and Cohen said, she made a pledge to provide scholarship support to benefit candidates in master’s and doctoral programs.
If health care, specifically cancer research and advancements in pediatric care, and education constituted two-thirds of their mother’s philanthropic philosophy — and her daughters confirmed they did — the last third was concerned with Jewish causes.
“Jewish causes were definitely at the core of her philanthropic mission,” daughter Nancy Abramson Wolfson said. “They belong to five or six synagogues, and they were founding members of Birthright — Birthright was really a big one for them.”
With the infrastructure of the Abramson Family Foundation well established and each daughter maintaining a managing role in the foundation, Abramson’s daughters said their mother’s values permeate all three generations of their family, down to the nine grandchildren, many of whom are just now beginning careers as young professionals.
“Philanthropy is something that was important to them, and it’s been ingrained in all of their children and grandchildren,” Wolfson said.
“And it’s important to always give back and help the community when you can,” added Wolfson’s sister, Judy Abramson Felgoise.
Abramson made sure to remain involved until recently to model the values she wanted to pass on to the youngest.
“One of the more recent activities that (my mother) had been involved in over the last five years was co-chairing an event we created together called Philly Fights Cancer to benefit clinical research and trials at the Abramson Cancer Center,” Wolfson said. “So it’s really something that we share as an entire family — her oldest granddaughter now chairs the Young Friends of Philly Fights Cancer, so it goes through all three generations.”
As someone who’d given of time, money and effort so broadly, the impact of Abramson’s loss is being felt broadly, from the city’s major institutions to individuals.
“We’ve had so many people reach out to us just this past week telling us about how many people she’s touched with just little things that we never even knew about,” Felgoise said. “She helped people on all scales, from giving to the cancer center to helping someone out with meals or rent.”
“She had a very soft touch … and a big heart,” Wolfson added.
Nowhere more so than with her family, especially her grandchildren, her daughters said.
“One of my children recently said that she was her compass,” Felgoise said. “She was more than a grandparent; she was more like a mentor and a friend.”
“The grandchildren would all try and come on Sunday nights for dinner, just to spend some time with them,” Wolfson said. Not out of obligation, she said, but because it was fun.
Engaged and involved with the world around her even in her last few weeks, Abramson was cognizant of and active in donating $1 million to the Cancer Center to fund COVID-19-related research there.
“She and my father were scared, and they knew it was serious,” Felgoise said. “And when somebody approached them and told them about new research being done, and they stepped up to the plate and said ‘we want to support it.’”
“She was my best friend,” Wolfson said. “A friend to everyone, a vibrant, strong, genuine, witty, wonderful person. The real deal.”
In addition to Felgoise and Wolfson, a third daughter, Marcy Shoemaker, survives Abramson, as do nine grandchildren and her husband, Leonard.
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